“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way,” Danielle’s mother, Debbie (Polly Draper), admonishes her as the two enter an unfamiliar situation in the house of a relative where they are meeting for a shiva.
That throwaway line is the sort of zinger that some of us have come to adore in the post-Fleabag era. It becomes even more appealing because it can be read as a backhanded-feminist, dirty joke that uses shock to work through anger and unease. Such salty zingers are a métier of Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby (2020). At 77-minutes, the film is a precise mechanism driven by black humor, a warped and affecting fable about one aimless, college-going woman Danielle, (played by actor and online comic, Rachel Sennott). The clever editing, with jokes cut off mid-beat, amplified by an intense, nerve-jangling background score by Ariel Marx, is both vaudevillian and elegant.
Shiva Baby is a wild, unpredictable, and unnerving ride inside a few humid hours of a college student’s life. With the advent of more streaming platforms now than ever before, there are more shows that look like films and vice-versa. And this is not entirely a bad thing. The wryly witty dialogue and darkly humorous setting of Shiva Baby are sorely reminiscent of TV series like Fleabag and BoJack Horseman, but Seligman’s spectacular food chops elevate the pitch. On the face of it, Danielle's sex life seems like the lifeblood of the feature, but upon a closer look, food reveals itself to be the film's animating spirit.
When she is not fretting about her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), his wife (Dianna Agron), or her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), Danielle is obsessing over food. She serves it, then throws it away. She tries to stuff more than necessary in her mouth. She uses serving food as a ruse to eavesdrop on conversations around her.
At the shiva of a relative (she’s not sure who died), among friends, close and distant relatives, and the surprise company of Max, the man with whom she has sex for money, a waylaid Danielle is subjected to whispered judgements and outright confrontations about her body (sexuality, weight, the works). There is a palpable sense of disapproval looming large in the room about how she uses her own body. At times, she avoids eating—loading and then unloading her plate—at other times, she eats ceaselessly.
“Do you think she has an eating disorder?” one prying old family member whispers. Another says, “I just feel so sorry for her mother.”
At this shiva, the near constant tug and pull, within and outside her body, by near-strangers and family keeps her on her toes, almost making the audience feel exhausted for her. They grab at her waist, her wrist, her face.
For Debbie, her daughter’s weight is simultaneously a point of pride and fear. At once, her mother wants her to enjoy her “little little little body,” but her patience continues to run short. Danielle’s eating habits are her concern only because of the clear disapproval of the other matriarchs around. Older women cutting taking a young woman down a notch. But Danielle, our figure of pathos, knows better.
Moving through the gathering and scarfing finger food (what Danielle thinks is her secret snacking), Danielle is being constantly ogled by a room full of gossiping onlookers. It’s almost as if they don’t have anything better to do. Devouring smoked salmon, Danielle forgets she’s just told the room about her vegetarianism. From these small acts of self-sabotage, Danielle builds slowly to bigger charades.
On the surface of the shiva, food seems to bind the grieving relatives, friends, and strangers together in their shared distress, but it also highlights their individual celebrations, curiosities, and loves. Food becomes the centerpoint as Danielle navigates her way through an unprecedented mini-crisis amid an ongoing one (spotting her sugar daddy at a shiva might not have even been on her list of fears). The whole thing is so extravagant, so outré, so funny.
The truth is, no matter how much smoked salmon Danielle scarfs down, it’s not food, but love, that she is really obsessed with. Starting with herself—she’s both repulsed by and drawn to the way that Maya’s femininity attracts her. Even though she discovers Max is a married, stay-at-home dad with a newborn in tow, she feels the urge to take naked selfies to grab his attention. Then, it’s almost as if she is in a sick competition with herself; a competition that she keeps helplessly trying to game. And food is her ally in this.
The overwhelming excitement around Shiva Baby suggests a profound hunger on the part of its audience for something nourishing, sustaining, and nutritious, prepared especially for them. This is fitting because hunger, in all its manifestations, drives the movie. As with all lost people of that age, there seems to be a profound sense of lack in Danielle. She is yet to figure out a career for herself and, by extension, justify feeling superior (because she has not really figured out much for her future, her career, and still relies on her parents for pocket money) to the women around her, like her ex and her sugar daddy’s wife.
Throughout the film, Danielle showcases her uncontrolled appetite for attention, sex, and food; none of which prove exclusive to one another. The film captures the sense that the world as we know it will slip away if we do not get to (or through) it fast enough. What Danielle is running toward—what career she wants to pursue, who she wants to sleep with—she has yet to discover. The exactness with which she reaches out for food highlights this rush. She does not want to lose an opportunity, not even at a shiva, to make a go at the food that is available in front of her.
Food, then, becomes a metaphor for a yearning in Danielle, which is not exactly careerist but seems to fill the void in the meantime. A stop-gap arrangement, while she figures out if she wants to go to law school or continue to have sex with random men. This dribbling sense of anxiety in Danielle comes from a place of not knowing if she is enough. Through her fixation with eating and near constant ingestion, even in the quiet minutes when she is just staring or not-so-casually eavesdropping, she is hiding behind food. Food to her is no less real or urgent. Food as both a metaphoric notion and a real, onscreen substance, is essential to Shiva Baby, and by extension, to Danielle.
Without sex (with Maya or the sugar daddy), food becomes a hard drug for Danielle. It’s the only way she knows how to blot out uglier memories, and it’s also the way that she relives them. As with BoJack Horseman, the tender, raw, and throbbing themes of Shiva Baby would be difficult to absorb if it weren’t for how legitimately and refreshingly funny the movie is: smutty-giggly, biting, attentive, and occasionally surreal. For women, food does not universally mean nourishment and sustenance. It varies and depends on the social, economic, and sociological makeup of the woman. The constant anxiety Danielle feels upon coming across Max in a family setting is not new to many women of her age. She is easily hurt in a fashion that does not have the fourth-wall-breaking self-awareness of Fleabag, nor the smugness and wealth of BoJack Horseman. But what binds these shows and this film together is the despondence Danielle and the other main characters experience by not being entirely seen and understood by those around them. They all want to experience sincere piety and embody an amiable character yet hold themselves back from going all the way for they don’t want to come across as trying too hard.
Part of what makes the movie so endearing is that Danielle's experience of paranoia becomes our own. Watching the movie is anxiety-inducing. We’re never quite sure of what the other guests know or don't know about Danielle’s life. Carefully trudging, we all are also walking on eggshells with her. It’s almost intuitive, then, the way in which Danielle gravitates toward the center table of food; perhaps a side of salmon will help her exist calmly for a few extra moments. At the shiva, Danielle internalizes the atmosphere of shame and repression around herself (her body as a thin, sexual being). She outrightly rejects the corporate feminism of Max’s wife, Kim: “I don’t really wanna be, like, a ‘girl boss’...”
Women giving in to their inherent hunger—forcing themselves to eat or to stay hungry—is reflective of the broader social malice of trying to regulate the eating desires of women. Feeling these immediate pressures, and unable to spill her secrets, Danielle tries to elicit a response from her mother, if she’s ashamed of her. It is this menagerie of moral panic that threatens to undo Danielle toward the end of the film in a final breakdown that is a direct consequence of the policing of her physical autonomy. À la Fleabag, kohl-smeared eyes, seated in the backseat of her father’s van, Danielle reaches for Maya’s hand (a small act of subversion) accompanied by her anxieties and also her relatives — she will overcome these people and these fears, she tells us.